Lessons Learned South Dakota Style, continued

Here are some more things I learned while living in South Dakota.  

I realized the abundance of wildlife that rangelands produce.  It is so different for me to be out in a pasture on the fourwheeler and see a flock of pheasants fly up, or see rabbits and deer.  I’ve seen a coyote and a badger.  When I ride a fourwheeler through my parents’ farm at home I am lucky to see a deer nibbling in an alfalfa field.  It just really hit me that all of this rangeland does so much good for the wildlife in comparison to farmed fields, and it should be protected not only for those animals but for the soil and water benefits it provides. 

Because I didn’t see a lot of wildlife at home I never realized how much habitat a hay field produces, especially for pheasants.  I was reminded of this every time I cut hay this summer and ran over a pheasant nest full of eggs.  It was like pulling a calf that doesn’t make it.  There was nothing I could do, but I felt bad anyway.  It just reminded me of nature’s life cycle and how humans have altered it so much.  Yet it is in our nature to alter the world we live in to survive, and without altering it we would not be anywhere near where we are today.  It almost seems like we have given ourselves a higher status than we deserve since we can decide the fate of animals and the land. 

When I came here I had hoped to learn to ride.  Turns out Mittens and Elmer had different ideas.  The first time I rode Elmer Lyle saddled him up for me, gave a few instructions, and turned me loose.  We only went around the yard, and it seemed to go ok.  After that I didn’t have time to ride for a while, and by the next time I did, Elmer had been taken to Luke’s and Mittens and Nelly the driving horse were brought over here.  When I wanted to ride Mittens Lyle had me saddle her with his supervision and off I went.  Well, that was what I hoped would happen.  Mittens decided she wanted to stay with Nelly and she kept trying to turn around.  We made it out to the nearest pasture and I figured once she couldn’t see Nelly she’d be more cooperative.  I underestimate horses apparently.  She not only wanted to go back to the yard, but she would take off running in that direction every chance she got.  This happened the next time I took her out as well.  Lyle told me to show her who was boss and to give her a kick when she was naughty.  Since I wasn’t raised with or around horses, I was afraid that if I gave her a little kick that she would go off running.  So I didn’t.  Moral of the story is that Mittens got the best of me this summer and I still haven’t learned to ride properly.

If I learned that South Dakota horses aren’t all that good to me, it is the opposite when it comes to the people here.  I have met nice people everywhere I have lived, but this is the smallest town I have lived near, and maybe that is the reason for everyone’s kindness. 

I have gotten lessons in gardening, baking, cooking, and canning while living with the Permans.  The women of this family are training me well to feed a future husband.  I learned that you shouldn’t plant potatoes in the same place two years in a row.  I learned to make homemade bread, caramel rolls, and kuchen.  Living out here has taught me to make use of what you have and that making homemade meals is really appreciated among family and guests alike. 

I have also gotten it in my head that I want to learn to be better with tools, be able to do some woodworking, have chickens and some cows, make as much of my own food as I can, and have an assortment of animals running around.  I am contemplating the benefits of staying home to raise your own kids versus sending them to a daycare.  I have been told my whole life to get a good job, but now I wonder if it wouldn’t be so bad to stay home for a few years to raise kids.  It would seem like those first years of a child’s life would be more important that some career.  That is how I grew up, how my boyfriend grew up, and how both my parents grew up.  And we all turned out pretty darn good.  There must be something there to attest to that.  It’s just one of many things that I have second-guessed by being here.

I also second-guessed my plans for after I graduate college.  I figured I would find a full time job with the NRCS right away, or maybe even try out some temporary jobs for a year or so.  I had no intentions whatsoever of going to grad school.  Last year I was so sick of college that I wanted to be done with it as soon as I could.  But the more I learned from working here and from the people I met this summer, the more grad school and doing research is interesting me.  I have no idea where I will go or the specifics of what I will study, but now at least I am thinking about it, and am pretty sure I want to spend another two years of my life in school.

Lastly, I learned that it is most definitely worth it to buy a $600 plane ticket or drive most of a day to see someone you love, even if you are a poor college student.  My boyfriend is 1200 miles and 20 hours of driving away and will be that way until Christmas.  My parents are 10 hours away, and my sisters are scattered.  Skype and phone calls can only do so much.  Perhaps being so far from everyone I love has made me appreciate the times I have with them so much more.  

Lessons Learned South Dakota Style

I’m having a hard time trying to organize my thoughts for this journal entry.  I was told to write about what I have learned and gotten out of this summer.  But it shouldn’t be just about work.  I was told, “For example, maybe write about what it was like to live an hour and a half from the nearest Walmart.   People like to hear personal stories.”  When thinking about what I have learned or experienced, Walmart never once popped into my mind.  But here are a few things that did.

I learned that even if everyone says tick season is over, it never actually is.  I’ve been hearing this for the past couple of weeks, and two days ago I pulled eight off in one day, and one a day for the three days before that.  I have yet to get Lyme disease, but that is only by the miracle that no ticks have made it up into my hair where it would take shaving my head to find them.  I’ve also experienced my first chigger bite, or I should say my first dozen chigger bites. 

Just yesterday it was reinforced that I could do things on my own even if I have never done it before and if I felt like I couldn’t.  I went out to record the different species of plants that were found near the creek that runs by the driveway using something called the step-point method which is where you take a predetermined amount of steps in one direction and at the last step you look at what plant is touching your boot tip.  My plant ID has gotten better than when I first started here, but I still didn’t think it would be sufficient to name the plants I saw.  Another problem that presented itself was that the method I was using would have worked better in much shorter vegetation.  When I stepped what ended up touching my boot was a bent over piece of grass instead of the base of a plant.  I ended up trying to dig around to find exactly what plant I needed in order to be as accurate as I could, which was time consuming.  It was also frustrating when I couldn’t find the plant in the ID book I had with me.  But lo and behold, I completed my task and what didn’t get identified I took home for a second look-through with the book.  I’ve had many similar cases throughout the summer where I think to myself, “Luke honestly thinks I can do this alone?”  And most of the time it turned out that he was right. 

Most everything I did here probably took me at least twice as long as it takes Luke or Lyle to do, but it was all a learning experience for me.  I knew it before this summer, but it was reinforced that if you want to do something right, you may need to take extra time to do it.  And the extra time will be reflected in the output and its quality. 

Along with taking the time to do things right, asking questions is strongly encouraged especially if the answer will speed up your project.  I remember the first or second time I had to roll up the temporary polywire and something went wrong (actually something usually goes wrong when I roll up polywire, but that’s a whole other story).  Instead of calling the house and figuring out how I could do it faster, I rolled it up by hand which seemed like it took 2 1/2; hours, which it very well could have.  When I got back I showed someone the spool that wouldn’t turn for me, and easy enough they showed me how to make it turn which could have saved me an hour and a half. 

I learned to be prepared.  If I get sent out to do something on my own chances are that I would forget some critical piece of equipment.  Whether it was a spare pen to write things down if I lost the one I had (which happened more than once) or if it was a post pounder that I forgot I needed because 5 1/2; foot steel posts don’t just drive themselves into the ground.  Many times I was far from the thing I forgot, so I had to waste more time going back to get it.  Needless to say, I have been getting better at double checking my equipment before I leave the yard.

There is more that I learned, but I don't want to bore you all in one sitting.  Stay tuned for another exciting post about my experiences in South Dakota.

To be continued…

A Grazing Experiment

One very important aspect of running a ranch is knowing how much forage you have available to your animals and how much they will need.  I devised an Excel spreadsheet that uses these two things along with how big a pasture is to give an estimate on how long the cattle can stay in a pasture without overgrazing it. 

This came in really handy when we decided to do a little more intensive grazing with the heifers.  They got moved into a set of pastures that wasn’t grazed at all last year so there was an abundance of food available to them.  The goal was to try to get them to utilize more of the standing forage and trample the rest which would speed up the nutrient cycle and make more nutrients available to the plants next year. 

We wanted the heifers to stay in each small paddock for approximately three days.  I measured how much grass was available to the heifers by using a grazing stick.  It looks like a yard stick and it is used to measure the height of the grasses.  Then you take into account how much the grass weights per inch based on the type of grasses that are in the pasture, and how efficiently the cows will use this grass to come up with a number that tells how much grass will be available in the pasture. 

The next step is to take the number of cows that will be in the pasture and figure out how much they will eat in one day based on their weight.  Lastly, I knew that we wanted to keep the cows in a small paddock for three days, so using how much they would eat in three days and how much was available to them I was able to determine how many acres of pasture they would need.  It turned out that the heifers needed about 3 ½ acres for three days of grazing. 

We first moved the heifers to this pasture on July 3rd.  We wanted to make a paddock large enough to hold them for six days because we did not want to have to move them over the holiday weekend.  I built the temporary fence while Luke brought them over in the trailer.  We gave them range cake (pictured below) which is a large pellet-like treat for the cows.  If they get used to getting this treat you can use it as a tool to move them from place to place.  The goal is to get them familiar with the sound of the cake rattling in a bucket and then they will follow the person with the bucket because they know they will get a treat.  The first day we didn’t need to get them to follow, but we gave them cake to get them used to the taste.

On July 8th the cows needed to be moved.  I set up another temporary fence to create the south boundary of the second paddock, and the first fence that I put up would be the north boundary.  After that I had to herd the heifers into the penned in area by the water tank so I could put up a little lane that they would use to get back to the water tank and which would keep them out of the areas that they had grazed already.  Well, they weren’t yet as used to the cake as I would have liked, because they did not follow me.  In fact, they went the complete opposite direction.  I remembered that Luke told me once that cows will move better if they think it’s their idea to move.  So I let them go where they wanted because they would find a fence in about 500 feet or so.  So they wandered to that fence which was the farthest they could go in the wrong direction.  When they found out they couldn’t go any farther they slowly turned as a herd and went the other direction.  I then walked behind them and slowly but surely we made it back to the water tank and I was able to give them some cake and lock them in by the water so I could finish building my fence.  The whole process of moving them probably took me 45 minutes.  I’m sure it would have taken Luke 10. 

The picture below is of the first grazed paddock on the left and an ungrazed pasture on the right.


This is the first grazed paddock on the left and the second ungrazed paddock on the right.

These are the same two paddocks, just on the opposite sides.

I fenced the second paddock to allow for three days of grazing.  On the third day Luke and I went out to check the heifers and we realized they still had enough grass to graze one more day.  The next day I came to build the third fence, extend the lane, and take down the first fence.  I built the third fence which was now the south boundary for the third paddock.  I shortened the east and west sides by 25 feet in the hopes that it would cut the grazing time back down to three days rather than four.  The plan was to move the cows into the third paddock by unhooking one side of the temporary fence and then herding them to that corner where they would easily walk through the gap.  Not surprisingly, they did not want to go where I wanted them to.  So I let them go where they wanted like the last time hoping that they would get to the far side and then turn around.  About half way across the pasture they decided they wanted to go through the fence that was up.  The fence was not energized because I was working on it, so they did not get shocked when they went through it.  Another failed move. 

This is the second grazed paddock and the third ungrazed paddock.

This is a closeup of the trampled and eaten grass in the second paddock.  You can see that there is a lot of dead brown stuff, which is what we call litter from the plants last year.  This litter was not able to break down as well as it would have if there had been cows grazing it last year.  By stepping on it and adding natural fertilizer from the cows, it increases the speed at which it breaks down by getting it closer to the soil which contains all of the beneficial microorganisms that break down organic matter.

Finally on the third move I got it right.  By this time they were used to getting cake.  Several in the herd would eat it out of my hands, so I would lure those few in the direction I wanted them to go using the cake as a reward when they came my way.  Soon the rest of the herd was left behind, and being a herd animal, they didn’t want to be separated from the rest.  So eventually they all followed me to where I wanted them to go.  When we got everyone into the next paddock I gave them all cake as a reward. 

This is the third and final grazed pasture next to the ungrazed rest of the pasture on the left.

The pasture was big enough to make several more small paddocks, but Luke was going to be out-of-state for a week, and I was going to be gone for two weekends and for a Monitoring Workshop.  So we decided to turn them into the rest of the pasture, and then next year Luke could look at the differences in regrowth between the small paddocks the rest of the pasture.  

This is a view of the second paddock in the foreground, the third paddock in the midground, and the last ungrazed piece of pasture in the background. 

The next picture is a closeup of the area where a temporary fence was.  The cattle wouldn't graze under it because they could get a shock if they got too close.